AOPA Pilot Special Report

50th Anniversary of the Cessna 172

June 1, 2006

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Proficient Pilot: A wonderful airplane

BY BARRY SCHIFF

An aviation expert and regular contributor to AOPA Pilot, Barry Schiff is happy to fly any aircraft, anytime.

In a sense, I flew the Cessna 172 a year before Cessna introduced it in 1956. This is when I had just received my private pilot certificate in June 1955 and had flown nothing but conventional-gear airplanes, mostly Aeronca Champs, Cessna 140s, and Cessna 170s.

One day a rather odd-looking Cessna taxied into the Bell Air Service ramp at Santa Monica Municipal Airport in California. It looked like a Cessna 170 but had a nosewheel instead of a tailwheel. It turned out to be a Cessna 170 that had been converted to a Tri-Cessna 170 by Met-Co-Aire, a maverick company in nearby Fullerton, California, headed by Tom Hebert, who had quit Douglas Aircraft to go into business for himself. (Met-Co-Aire later became better known for its Hoerner wing tips.)

A group of us gathered around the ungainly looking airplane and concluded that such an oddity had no place in general aviation. Little did we know that Cessna, which was later and informally accused of copying the Met-Co-Aire concept, would produce an airplane that would become one of the world's most popular and enduring designs. It probably is safe to say that more pilots alive today have flown a Cessna 172 than any other type.

I accepted an offer to fly the Tri-Cessna 170 (N2540V). During my approach to land, the demonstration pilot to my right folded his arms across his chest and offered no advice about landing the aircraft. Nor was any advice needed. Tricycle gear made the landing less challenging than any I had ever made and somewhat justified Cessna eventually advertising that the Cessna 172 had Land-O-Matic landing gear.

When the 172 hit the market a year later, the flight school at which I worked as a fledgling instructor opted to replace its fleet of taildragging trainers with the new Cessna. This was before the Model 150 was introduced a few years later (1959).

The airplane became so popular that I found myself spending increasingly more time ferrying airplanes from the factory to Southern California and far less time than was needed to keep up with my college studies.

Instructing in a 172 was so much easier than sitting in the rear seat of a Champ and yelling at the back of a student's head. Not seeing his face made it difficult to know whether he wore an expression of confusion or understanding.

The airplane attracted more students, too. Many had previously arrived at our school, looked at the forlorn, fabric-covered, 65-horsepower trainers, said "no, thank you," and simply walked away. But the shiny, all-metal Cessna made the prospect of learning to fly more enticing. The extra two seats made it easier for a prospective student to envision taking his family or friends on a flight of fancy to some appealing destination.

For these and other reasons, I believe that it was the Cessna 172 that was most responsible for the acceleration in flight training that spiked during the late 1970s.

The airplane also taught me a lot about flying. When I was at the factory picking up a new Skyhawk, a test pilot there told me that this was the easiest airplane he had ever landed without using the control wheel. This was the first I had heard of such a thing, and when I asked for a demonstration, he eagerly agreed.

The pilot made a flaps-up approach, explaining that flaps create a nose-low attitude that makes it difficult to flare for landing using only elevator trim and power. So with his feet on the rudder pedals, his right hand on the throttle, and his left hand in his lap, he made a firm but safe arrival without touching the control wheel.

"The hardest part," he explained, "is knowing how much power and nose-up trim are needed to offset the tendency of the nose to dip as the airplane enters ground effect."

The opposite occurs during takeoff when the airplane leaves ground effect. The nose tends to pitch up slightly. This is seldom observed because of the almost subconscious way in which we correct for unwanted and minute attitude changes with the control wheel.

The demonstration in Wichita was fascinating, so much so that I knew I would have to try it when I returned home, but not without an instructor in the right seat to set things straight in case I faltered. Good thing he was there, too. Landing while using only elevator trim and power might sound easy in theory, but it is more difficult than you might imagine. Very few pilots can do it on their first try. Practice under the supervision of a sharp instructor with good reflexes is needed to gain proficiency.

A friend and I eventually got so good at making stick-free landings that we got bored with them and developed a procedure for landing without using the rudder to maintain directional control. It is done by first unlatching both cabin doors and allowing them to float freely. Directional control is maintained by pushing on one door or the other. (It helps to have long arms.) Pushing open the left door of a Cessna 172, for example, results in a surprisingly balanced and smooth turn to the right, and vice versa.

A reliable source once told me that there has never been an accident in a Cessna 172 attributable to structural failure. This would not surprise me at all. Nor would anything else said in praise of this wonderful airplane.